Robots express their artistry

Hopkins students create machines that create art

December 09, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

Amit Evron looked down at his creation yesterday with admiration. There was his robot, M&M, fulfilling his classroom assignment by designing works of art.

Competing against eight other robots, M&M won top honors, the People's Choice Award, with its multicolored spiral designs splashed across white poster boards.

"I don't think I could do that," the Johns Hopkins University senior said of the efforts of the robot, which he created with partner Alican Demir.

Perhaps he can't. But Evron and Demir created something that could, merging academic areas that are often considered opposites: art and science.

About 19 Hopkins engineering students did their part to break down the wall, building machines that could watercolor with the best 9-year-olds, spray-paint like a graffiti artist, and design, as M&M proved, with the precision of a graphics artist.

It was the second time in the past three years that Allison Okamura, an instructor in the school's engineering department, had asked her students to use robots to create art. She wanted them to pursue the idea that machines are capable of creation - which, apparently, many of the students have come to believe.

Jonathan Lasko and Nick Marchuk made "Can Dinsky," a robot that did indeed seem to have a mind of its own. Can Dinsky was named in honor of Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and art theorist.

Can Dinsky, which spray-painted its poster board into what looked like a design for a tie-dye T-shirt, would have made his namesake proud. Can Dinsky was the only robot that used legs instead of wheels, with its two sensors rising from the top to give the machine the look of a miniature spaceship that just landed.

"It was created to express itself," said Lasko, a senior. "It's controlled in the sense that we programmed it, but it is not controlled in the sense that we have no idea what it is going to do."

Mixing robots and art is far from a novel idea. Robotic Action Painter, a.k.a. RAP, made its debut earlier this year. RAP creates its work based on artificial intelligence algorithms and has the ability to sign its name in the bottom right corner of its art.

ArtBots, an exhibition for robotic art and art-making robots, was established two years ago and has regional shows in different countries throughout the year. In 2005, 21 pieces were selected from throughout the world for the international contest in Dublin, Ireland.

The Hopkins students might not be at that level of competition, but the concept of artistic machines spoke to a broader idea for Joan Freedman, director of the Digital Media Center at the university. Freedman says it is necessary for students not to pigeon-hole themselves and to avoid falling into stereotypical categories.

"Engineers are incredibly creative people, but somehow there is this distinction," Freedman said. "Are you an artist or are you a scientist? We really believe you can be both. Both are creative, and the creative process is very similar as well."

Freedman, though, will not go as far as to call a manmade robot an artist.

"The definition of art is something that is an intentional process. And since none of these computers actually have intelligent systems, they really are making marks on paper instead of art," she said.

Evron, the co-creator of first-place M&M, manipulated his machine's sensors to make specific designs in certain areas, although the duo could not determine the exact spot.

Visually, M&M's art might have been the most pleasing. But up until show time, after pulling nearly an all-nighter to get M&M up to speed, the creators were not sure what to expect: M&M was built for under $80.

"We weren't 100 percent confident it would work," Evron said. "But we thought it would be good. I don't know if we expected to get first, but it did well."

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